The Ismaili community constitutes the second largest Shia group after the Twelvers in the Muslim world. Today, they are scattered in more than 20 countries in Asia, Europe, Africa and America.
The Ismailis have had a long and eventful history over the 12 centuries of their existence. In medieval times, they twice established states of their own and played important roles for relatively long periods on the historical stage of the Muslim world. During the second century of their history, the Ismailis founded the first Shia caliphate under the Fatimid caliph-imams.
They also made important contributions to Islamic thought and culture during the Fatimid period. Later, after a schism that split Ismailism into two major groups — the Nizari and Mustalian branches, the Nizaris succeeded in establishing a cohesive state, with numerous mountain strongholds and scattered territories stretching from eastern Persia to Syria.
The Nizari state collapsed only after the onslaught of the all-conquering Mongols.
Thereafter, the Ismailis never regained political prominence and survived in many lands as a minority Shia Muslim sect.
By the second half of the 18th century however, the spiritual leaders or Imams of the Nizari majority, came out of their obscurity and actively participated in certain political events in Persia and then in British India; later acquiring recognition under their leader with the hereditary title of “Aga Khan”.
In the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Ismailis from the Indian sub-continent migrated in significant numbers to East Africa in search of trading opportunities. This region was not entirely new to them as the Omanis, who may have included some Ismailis, had been trading spices and ivory in Zanzibar since the 17th century.
The Ismailis were known for their generous philanthropic work wherever they ventured and Kenya was no exception.
Rahimtulla Walji Hirji, a successful Ismaili Indian trader who had come to Kenya at the beginning of the 20th century, founded the Rahimtulla Charitable Trust in 1940.
The Ismail Rahimtulla Walji Trust Library was constructed by the trust of that name in 1953. Situated on what was then Jeevanjee Street — current Mfangano Street — the building was designed by architects Bhalla and Thakore to a neo-classical style of architecture featuring a majestic façade with Greco-Roman columns. Walls are built in smooth dressed grey stone with pedimented door and window frames.
The roof is covered under corrugated iron sheets supported by magnificent smooth rendered and painted vaulted reinforced concrete frames with stone infilling.
Windows are glazed in steel casements while doors are made of beautiful hand polished panelled timber hung in polished moulded timber frames. Floors are finished in a variety of terrazo and granite. The entrance hall features a mosaic of coloured glass on the floor.
The ground floor consists of the main library hall, a tastely furnished reading room with timber panelling to a height of 1500mm, reception area, office, gent’s washrooms while the upper floor hosts a theatre/gallery, offices and ladies washrooms.
The building is in a good state of repair and decoration. It offers a serene environment for reading away from the hustle and bustle on the street. Although the building is currently not in use, for circumstances which are not entirely clear, there is a dedicated caretaker who sees to its regular cleaning and upkeep. The library books are intact and safely locked away. It was gazetted as a national monument in 2001.
Mr Rahimtulla’s main interests were in education and health but the objectives of this library, built in his memory, were to “house books pertaining to philosophy, law, politics, history, medicine, arts and religion”.
In contrast to the MacMillan Memorial Library, which was open only to Europeans since 1931, this library was open to all, for free.
Between 1970 and 1978 the building served as the repository for the Kenya National Archives Department. Before then the facility also hosted meetings of the Transport Licensing Board.
Today, the structure looks incongruous nestled between numerous buildings housing “exhibition” type stalls overflowing with human traffic.
However, it stands out as a stark reminder of our road to self determination and the efforts by those opposed to racial discrimination by the colonial authorities.
The Rahimtulla Trust largely supports substantial educational scholarships in partnership with local and international organisations.
They own the iconic modern building, Rahimtulla Towers in Upper Hill amongst other properties. The trust is one of the largest and best managed in the country.
The author is a retired banker and motorcycle enthusiast. E-mail [email protected]